The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
6. The E.T. Phenomenon

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The summer of 1982 was a big one for the American movie industry, with hits like Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky III, The World According to Garp, An Officer and A Gentleman, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas lighting up the big screen and meeting with the approval of millions of filmgoers who sought cinematic escape from the realities of a nation struggling with deep recession and high unemployment.  But the biggest hit of all was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the story of a lovable, homesick alien abandoned in California by its fellow space travelers and in need of help from a few equally lovable kids (Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert Macnaughton)  in order to escape the clutches of the government and the scientific community and to summon a spaceship back to Earth to take it home.  Premiering June 11, E.T. grossed a record $89.6 million in the first twenty-five days and reached the $200 million mark in sixty-six days.  At that point many were predicting that E.T. would surpass 1977's Star Wars, which had garnered $486 million, as the number-one box office hit of all time.
The resurgence of Hollywood in the Eighties, epitomized by blockbusters like E.T., surprised many who as the decade opened predicted a grim future for the movie business.  As production costs soared in the 1970s, audiences shrank and profits declined.  Cable TV and video cassettes were perceived as major threats.  "We are...a dying business," lamented movie writer-director Paul Schrader.  Movies were no longer America's favorite entertainment form; in 1980 only one billion cinema tickets were sold -- one-fourth the number sold in 1946.  But reports of Hollywood's demise proved to be premature.
E.T.'s creator and director, Hollywood wonderboy Steven Speilberg, got his inspiration for the story in 1980 while in Tunisia filming a previous mega-hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Spielberg convinced Raiders star Harrison Ford to help him persuade Ford's girlfriend, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, to do the screenplay.  When filming began one year later, the E.T. set was as secure as Fort Knox; Spielberg didn't want anyone to see E.T., a special effects masterpiece, for fear someone would steal the whole concept. (Ironically, a $750 million lawsuit was later filed against Spielberg by playwright Lisa Litchfield, who alleged that Spielberg had stolen the idea for E.T. from a 1978 play she wrote entitled Lokey From Maldemar.)
Italian special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi, who designed E.T., had two Oscars to his credit for previous work in King Kong and Alien.  At a cost of $1.5 million, three E.T. models were designed and constructed -- one electronic, one mechanical, and one "freestanding," the latter operated from the inside by two dwarves, Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, and a boy, Matthew De Meritt, who had been born without legs.  E.T.'s distinctive voice was supplied by 65-year-old speech teacher Pat Walsh, who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, giving her voice a raspy quality deemed perfect for the extra-terrestrial.  Walsh was discovered in a Marin County camera store and was asked to remove her dentures during an audition, supposedly to make her locution more suitable for an alien creature. More E.T. trivia: the extra-terrestrial's scream was the electronically-altered cry of an otter; E.T.'s soulful eyes were modeled after designer Rambaldi's Himalayan cat; a special screening of the film at the White House left First Lady Nancy Reagan reduced to tears.
In fact, E.T. touched the hearts of millions of moviegoers.  One enthusiastic fan claimed it was The Wizard of Oz of the baby boom generation. Audiences gave the film standing ovations.  According to Newsweek, "E.T. phone home" became the most "overworked phrase of the year."  Chicago's Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin described the blockbuster movie as a profoundly spiritual confirmation of faith and hope.  The author of a study of Eighties films concluded that E.T. was "a fable of international cooperation" that espoused friendship and understanding as an approach preferable to the belligerence and prejudices of Cold War hostilities.  In a more curmudgeonly vein, commentator George F. Will decided that the movie was anti-adult and anti-science.
Universal Pictures sank a modest $10 million into the making of E.T., and as if huge box office returns weren't enough, profits on E.T. merchandise loomed large.  George Lucas had demonstrated the viability of movie-related merchandising with a cornucopia of Star Wars commercial spin-offs.  E.T. products included a doll retailing at $19.95, produced by California's Kamar International, which received $2 million worth of orders daily.  There was also an E.T. Fantasy Module version of the Speak & Spell game used in the film, a lunchbox, an electronic game, boy's underwear, headbands, shoelaces, watches, tableware, stuffed games, gift wrap, greeting cards, books and posters.  In all, over forty E.T. products were destined for the marketplace.  
By the end of the decade a string of commercial as well as critical successes had put the bloom back on the cheeks of the film industry. Not since the 1950s had youth-oriented films been so successful; the Eighties produced classics like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful.  The Terminator and Die Hard established an action film genre that was still going strong well into the Nineties.  The Last Emperor and Out of Africa proved that epic dramas were not a thing of the past.  Poltergeist and Nightmare on Elm Street became new horror classics.  And hits like Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo: First Blood and Raiders of the Lost Ark spawned profitable sequels.  All in all, the 1980s saw moviegoing come back into style.

Top Films of the Eighties

1.  E.T.
(1982-$399.9 million)

2.  Return of the Jedi
(1983-$309.1 million)

3.  The Empire Strikes Back
(1980-$290.2 million)

4.  Batman
(1989-$251.2 million)

5.  Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981-$242.4 million)

6.  Beverly Hills Cop
(1984-$234.8 million)

E.T. ranks fourth all-time in top movies, behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, and Titanic.

A half-sheet advertisement for the 1981 hit movie,  Raiders of the Lost Ark


Newsweek, 27 December 1982

People Weekly, 23 August 1982

Time, 19 July 1982

The Films of the Eighties: A Social History
William J. Palmer (Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 1993)

The Films of the Eighties
Douglas Brode (New York: Citadel Press, 1990)

Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies
Jonathan Bernstein (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997)